By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Trevor Bach
By Kyle Munzenrieder
The drive from Brickell Key, in downtown Miami, to the federal prison in South Dade normally takes about 30 minutes. But for Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko the journey took a full year. This past Friday the West African millionaire entered the minimum-security facility, where he will serve 43 days for paying an "illegal gratuity" to a U.S. Customs agent so he could sneak a pair of helicopters from Miami to the tiny African nation of Gambia.
Sissoko spent more than one million dollars trying to avoid Friday afternoon's twenty-mile drive to prison. He retained nearly a dozen defense attorneys to fight the criminal charges, and hired a former United States senator to apply political pressure to Attorney General Janet Reno. In the process, Sissoko's defenders unleashed a vicious smear campaign against the prosecutor and the customs agent responsible for his indictment, accusing them of being unethical, corrupt, and racist.
In a last-minute maneuver, Sissoko's supporters argued he that couldn't be imprisoned because he was protected by diplomatic immunity, a claim struck down two weeks ago by a federal judge who promptly ordered Sissoko to report to prison -- thirteen months after he was arrested, eight months after pleading guilty, and six months after being sentenced.
Most people in Miami know Sissoko through tales of his extravagant generosity and lavish spending sprees. He gave Miami Central High School $300,000 so its marching band could attend the upcoming Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. He bought three of his attorneys brand-new $60,000 Mercedes, and doled out Jaguars to several others. He tipped a masseuse $10,000 and routinely handed out hundred-dollar bills to homeless people. When he overheard a woman at a car dealership haggling about the price of a Range Rover, Sissoko stepped in and simply bought it for her. Each bit of Sissoko munificence, dutifully chronicled by the local media, has added another brush stroke to the emerging portrait of a legend, a South Florida folk hero whose big heart has been matched by an even bigger bank account, and a man whose criminal case has become a cause celebre in Miami's black community.
Despite his instant renown, Baba Sissoko remains largely a mystery to the public, the source of his vast wealth a subject of conflicting speculation. As for his personal life, only a coterie of insiders has been privileged to glimpse that world. One of them is Ewa Adamek, a 47-year-old Polish immigrant who came to the United States in 1989. Upon first meeting Sissoko, Adamek believed he must be some sort of god.
Soon after her arrival in this county, Adamek found herself in upstate New York, where she met and fell in love with a man named Rene Dubois, a driving-school instructor from the African nation of Zaire (recently rechristened as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). They moved in together and Dubois, a pilot by training, began looking for business opportunities in aviation. Adamek eked out a living cleaning houses and baby-sitting.
Thanks to an African friend, Dubois in 1995 was introduced to Sissoko, who at that time was attempting to launch an ambitious new venture, a commercial airline to be called Air Dabia. Dubois traveled to Africa and met with Sissoko, who not only offered him a job but gave him a gold necklace and other jewelry as presents for Adamek. When Dubois returned to New York with a new job and luxurious gifts, Ewa Adamek thought her prayers had been answered.
In November 1995 Sissoko traveled to New York. Adamek and Dubois went to the airport to greet him. "I was driving an old Nissan, and when I took Baba from the airport to the Four Seasons, I could see that he did not like my car and was not very comfortable," Adamek recalls. "After we got to the hotel, he left for a couple of hours with Rene, and when they came back Baba gave me the keys to a new car. He went out and bought me a car! I couldn't believe it! I thought that God had come down from the sky and blessed me."
A few weeks later, on New Year's Eve, Sissoko chartered three private jets to take Adamek, Dubois, and a growing entourage of hangers-on to Atlantic City, where they spent the night gambling at Donald Trump's Castle casino. Adamek says Sissoko lost several hundred thousand dollars at the roulette table. "It was all very exciting," she recounts. "We'd walk through the casino and there would be security guards surrounding us and clearing a path. Everyone in the place would just stop what they were doing and stare at us, trying to figure out who we were."
It was the same when Sissoko went shopping in Manhattan. "He would only shop in Cartier, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany's," she says. "You could never take him somewhere where he might find the same item for a discount -- that was not the image he wanted people to see."
In Sissoko's roving entourage, which often included his brother, one or two of his four wives, several business agents, musicians, bodyguards, drivers, and a retinue of toadies, everyone seemed to have a role to play, including Adamek, who says she was instructed by one of Sissoko's wives to give up her cleaning and baby-sitting jobs. "Marie Louise told me that it would not be appropriate for the manager of Baba's airline to be with a cleaning lady," she recalls. Instead Adamek would put to use her talent for languages -- she speaks Polish, English, French, and Russian -- and act as an interpreter for Marie Louise, who spoke French. (Sissoko himself speaks a Malian dialect known as Bambara and some English, but reportedly he is more comfortable with French.)
Sissoko spent four months in New York before returning to Africa in March 1996. While at JFK airport, Sissoko handed an airline ticket agent a check for $10,000. "She was shocked, she could not believe it," Adamek recalls, adding that Sissoko then began handing out checks in various amounts to complete strangers while he waited to board his flight. "He finished two checkbooks that way," she marvels.
His spending was no less grand when he arrived in Miami -- in handcuffs -- nearly eight months later. After his August 1996 arrest in Switzerland on the helicopter charge, Sissoko began making plans for his inevitable extradition to South Florida. Adamek and Dubois were among those immediately dispatched to Miami. Hotel suites were booked, automobiles bought, and housing arrangements completed. (According to his attorneys, Sissoko leased ten apartments on the 26th floor of Courvoisier Courts for approximately $50,000 per month; he also purchased five condominiums at Tequesta Point for somewhere between two and three million dollars. Both developments are on Brickell Key.) Following his release on bail, he strolled through an El Dorado furniture showroom, pointing out the pieces he wanted delivered the next day to his condominiums.
Sissoko was not permitted to leave Dade County without approval from the U.S. Attorney's Office, which demanded that his movements be monitored by a private security team hired by his attorneys. Despite these obstacles, Sissoko was determined to continue overseeing his far-flung business empire. He and his staff commonly stayed up most nights in order to maintain telephone contact with subordinates in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.
His fondness for expensive jewelry was also unaffected by the pending criminal case, much to the delight of jewelers in Bal Harbour, a favored Sissoko shopping destination. After a while, Adamek says, the jewelry stores came to him, carting their goods by armored car to Brickell Key so he could view merchandise in the convenient privacy of his own home. "Watching it all," Adamek remembers, "was like a fairy tale."
Adamek's fairy-tale world, however, was as flawed as it was fragile. Although initially awed by Sissoko's wealth, she eventually began to understand how he used it to manipulate people. "He doesn't pay the people who work for him; he gives them gifts," she explains, adding that as a result they find it impossible to save money and so are forced to wait anxiously for Sissoko to bestow the next gift upon them. That method of operating, according to Adamek, creates an environment that is part cult, part carnival. "Baba wants everyone to stay with him and do whatever he wants," she says. "He wants you to be dependent on him."
But as Adamek would learn, Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko was not someone to depend on. Among other things, she blames him for poisoning her relationship with Rene Dubois by corrupting her long-time boyfriend with women and money. And because she refused to acquiesce, she was summarily jettisoned -- thrown out on the street and left penniless.
Nearly eight hours into her flight from Miami to Gambia, Sally Ragsdale heard a loud and ominous noise erupting from the rear of her Air Dabia Boeing 747. As the senior flight attendant onboard, she grabbed another crew member and they frantically raced toward the sound. Peering out a window along the starboard side of the plane, she was stunned to see that a 30-foot section of the wing's metal skin had blown off and apparently collided with the tail. "I'll never forget it," she recalls with a shudder. "A panel had flown off and you could see the honeycomb interior of the wing." Still an hour from the Gambian capital of Banjul, the damaged plane began to shake. Ragsdale tried to remain calm, but she couldn't help feeling both scared and stupid. Why, she asked herself, did she ever agree to work for Baba Sissoko?
A flight attendant for nineteen years, thirteen of them with Braniff, Ragsdale had spent most of the last six years working for private companies aboard their corporate jets. She spent one NBA season ferrying the Utah Jazz from city to city. Other employers included Chase Manhattan Bank, Planet Hollywood, and Rolling Stone magazine. She even worked several weeks aboard the Gulfstream that shuttled former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and motivational guru Tony Robbins around the country for a series of speaking engagements.
This past April she received a call at her New Jersey home from a man who identified himself as a captain for Air Dabia. She had never heard of the airline, but the caller, Mamadou Jaye, told Ragsdale that she had come highly recommended and that he was in desperate need of a senior flight attendant for a five-week assignment carrying Muslims on a religious pilgrimage from Africa to Saudi Arabia. The plane would be departing from Miami for Africa the very next day. Jaye offered her $4700 plus expenses. The money was adequate, Ragsdale acknowledged, but she had another incentive. Her brother was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Saudi Arabia. "I thought it would be a great chance to see him," she recalls, "so I said yes."
She quickly packed, flew into Miami that night, managed a few hours of sleep, and was back at the airport the next day. Right away she knew she'd gotten involved with an odd enterprise. Upon arriving, she watched as Air Dabia employees loaded the jumbo jet's passenger compartment with boxes and containers: "Picture a 747 filled -- and I mean filled -- from the coach section back with cartons of china, linen, clothes, household items."
According to Ragsdale, her agreement with Mamadou Jaye called for her to be paid after she had seated the twenty passengers (including one of Sissoko's wives), the doors of the plane had been secured, and the crew had prepared for takeoff. But there was no money for her.
Jaye promised to pay after they landed in Gambia, but Ragsdale became suspicious and began snooping around the plane. She soon realized there were no fire extinguishers onboard -- and no life rafts or oxygen tanks. "The entire aircraft was stripped," she says. "When I asked about the condition of the plane, Mamadou Jaye just kept telling me that there was no FAA in Africa."
By the time the airliner touched down in Banjul, Ragsdale had decided to quit. "We were told they were going to fix the wing using speed tape and that we would be going to Zaire the next morning," she recalls. "There was no way I was ever getting onboard that aircraft again." (She later learned the plane had once been owned by United Airlines and that in 1989 its cargo door blew off over Hawaii, killing nine passengers.)
When she made her complaints known to Jaye and told him she was resigning, he grew incensed. Ragsdale says he called her a bitch and threatened to have her arrested: "He said that if I opened my mouth again I was going to jail.
"I cried all that night," she continues. "I was so sad and scared, I didn't know what was going to happen." Two Air Dabia pilots, both Americans who had been among the passengers from Miami to Gambia, had come to her aid as she argued with Jaye. The pilots, Richard Downs and Dan Polchinski, said they too were ready to desert Air Dabia, so the three of them decided to leave Gambia together.
The next day Air Dabia officials promised to provide them with tickets out of the country, but never issued them. The other airlines operating out of Banjul, such as Air Afrique, would not accept their credit cards. Neither Ragsdale nor the pilots had been paid, and none had sufficient cash for tickets. They were stranded.
Today Ragsdale suspects that the airline officials were hoping the trio would change their minds and return to work. At one point she was given the opportunity to speak by telephone (and through an interpreter) with Sissoko in Miami. He told her to relax and enjoy the free stay at her Banjul hotel; she and Downs and Polchinski would be paid the next day. The money, he added, would be wired from one of his Miami bank accounts. "It never came," she says. "He just kept us there. He knew we couldn't get out, that we were trapped."
Ragsdale complained to the American Embassy in Banjul, but what she heard in response only made her more upset. Complaints such as hers, she learned, were hardly unique: "An embassy official told me that Sissoko hires Americans all the time, rotates them through Africa, but never pays them and leaves them to find their own way home."
After a week Polchinski's wife, from her home in Orlando, arranged for three tickets to Brussels to be waiting for them at the Banjul airport. An embassy staffer escorted them there to ensure their prompt departure.
A U.S. Department of State official confirms Ragsdale's story and acknowledges it was not an isolated event. "On several occasions American citizen employees of Air Dabia have approached the embassy for assistance in situations in which they believed they had been threatened by airline management," according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "On those occasions we have taken the steps necessary to assist and protect them." One of those incidents, the official says, involved another female flight attendant, who claimed that Sissoko himself made several unwelcome advances and repeatedly told her she was going to become one of his wives. She managed to leave Gambia, the official recounts, though she was badly frightened.
Numerous other Americans have complained about not being paid by Air Dabia, according to the official, but in those cases there is little the state department can do. Among those people is Thomas "T.K." Sanders, one of Sissoko's personal pilots responsible for flying the millionaire's private jet. "I don't have anything against the man," Sanders says during a telephone interview from France. "He just doesn't pay his bills. He owes so many people so much money it's just ridiculous. He owes me $60,000. I haven't been paid in more than four months."
Three months ago Sanders and another of Sissoko's pilots were sent to Dinard, in northwestern France, to receive training on a new private jet Sissoko had recently purchased. But two weeks into their program, Sanders says, the classes were suspended because Sissoko had failed to make the necessary payments. "We've been here for 75 days waiting for him to pay the company the money so we can finish our training and get out," Sanders says, frustration rising in his voice. "We're stuck here without any money. He's got us in a hotel but we've got no way to get home. He keeps saying he's going to send some money over, but he never does."
Sanders and others complain that Sissoko had a weird way of conducting business. "If you work for free for him, you're great," notes an Air Dabia employee who asked that his name not be used because he is still hoping to be paid by Sissoko. "But when you try to get paid, then you are seen as a problem. He likes you to come to him like a servant and say, 'Baba, I need to be paid. Please, Baba, I need money.' He wants to humiliate you in front of people. He wants to feel like a prophet or a god."
According to Sanders and two Air Dabia sources who asked not to be identified, one flight crew became so disgusted with Sissoko's refusal to pay them that earlier this year they abandoned their Boeing 727 in London and slipped away with more than $100,000 in cash Sissoko had provided for aircraft repairs and fuel. "I'm not saying what they did was right," says one Air Dabia employee, "but I understood their frustration."
Sanders has been working for Sissoko since January 1996. A lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves, the 43-year-old California resident had been stationed in Italy as an air-traffic controller monitoring military flights over Bosnia. His tour of duty was nearing its end when he heard about a West African millionaire who was creating an airline and looking for pilots. Sanders flew to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to meet him. "When you meet this guy, it is incredible," he recalls. "You walk into the room and everyone is treating him like a god."
The working arrangement, Sanders says, was fairly straightforward: $5000 per month plus medical benefits and airfare back to the United States several times per year. Sanders says he was drawn to the endeavor by a sense of adventure: "We were going to start a new airline. How often does a person get to do that?"
When reports of Sissoko's legendary expenditures in Miami filtered across the Atlantic, some of his overseas employees reportedly grew angry. "How would you feel if you heard about him spending all of this money on cars and marching bands while you haven't been paid in months?" Sanders asks from his hotel room in France. "You'd probably be a little pissed, wouldn't you?"
In May of last year, Jim Wilbert was sitting in the Banjul airport when a group of soldiers approached him. He had been waiting for a plane to take him to neighboring Senegal, where he could catch a flight home to the United States. A pilot and an executive with a Tennessee company that sells used airplanes, Wilbert had been in Gambia for several weeks overseeing the delivery of two Boeing 727s purchased by the owner of Air Dabia, Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko. The fledgling airline tycoon had begun complaining about the terms of the sale, so Wilbert, hoping to avoid a confrontation, decided it was time to leave.
"As I was waiting," he recalls, "a group of soldiers approached me. One of the men, who was not wearing a uniform, asked me if I was Captain Wilbert, and when I said yes they took me away to a private room in the airport." Wilbert's U.S. passport and other identification were seized, as was his plane ticket to Senegal. "The man said he was a government security officer and he told me that Sissoko did not want me to leave the country."
Wilbert says he protested his detention and asked to see someone from the American Embassy but the request was denied. He was then taken to an oceanfront resort and casino called Amie's Beach, owned by Sissoko. "I was given a room and was placed under guard," he reports. "Later Sissoko came in. He was very angry and was yelling at me that I shouldn't have tried to leave. He then instructed the guards that I wasn't allowed to leave the hotel."
For the next 22 days, Wilbert asserts, he was held against his will while Sissoko renegotiated the price of the airplanes with Wilbert's bosses. "I was held for economic gain by Mr. Sissoko," he says flatly. "I was a tool. Sissoko made it clear he would not allow me to leave the country until the price of the planes was lowered." In order to secure Wilbert's release, his employer, C&S Acquisitions, dropped the sale price by $315,000, according to Wilbert's attorney Brad W. Hornsby. Jokes Wilbert: "I didn't know my body was worth that much."
A lawsuit filed by Wilbert against Sissoko this past June is scheduled for trial in Tennessee early next year. To defend himself in court, Sissoko made sure he hired clout -- the law firm of former United States senator Howard Baker. One of Sissoko's Miami attorneys, Thomas Spencer, Jr., is assisting in the case and denies that Sissoko held Wilbert hostage. "This whole scenario is trumped up," Spencer contends. "He was not a prisoner." Spencer does acknowledge that Sissoko complained to Gambian authorities that he believed he had been cheated in a business deal, and that as a result Wilbert's passport and airline ticket had been seized while officials reviewed the matter. According to Spencer, the incident was nothing more than a simple business dispute that was finally resolved.
Hornsby, on the other hand, argues that Sissoko used the Gambian military as if it were his own private police force. "If you have a complaint, you file a lawsuit and you take it to court," he says. "You don't take people hostage. We are a law-abiding society. Mr. Sissoko put himself above the courts."
The criminal case that brought Sissoko to Miami began in late July 1996 with the bumbling misadventures of a pair of Sissoko's employees named Serge Comminges and Moumouni Dieguimde, who had been sent to Miami from New York to buy helicopters. "It was wacky, weird shit," recalls Jim Robinson, whose Opa-locka firm, South Florida Aviation Investments, sold Comminges and Dieguimde (pronounced ko-ming-ess and dah-goom-day) two Vietnam War-era Bell helicopters for $270,000. "They were in an incredible hurry and they wanted the helicopters shipped to Gambia right away. I told them I didn't handle the shipping. They'd have to talk to someone else." For the next several days, Robinson says, he watched with amusement as the pair raced from one shipping company to another trying to find someone who would transport the helicopters to Africa immediately.
Opa-locka is a small airport, so it's not surprising that Comminges's and Dieguimde's frenetic activity quickly caught the attention of U.S. Customs officials, who began monitoring their movements. "The problem was that they were also being smart-mouths and calling attention to themselves," Robinson adds. "In addition to acting strange, they were making jokes about how they were going to overthrow various governments in Africa and shit like that."
The helicopters the two purchased required a special export license from the U.S. Department of State before they could be shipped out of the country. The license was necessary because the aircraft, though converted from military to civilian use, could easily be refitted as gunships.
Comminges and Dieguimde were told they needed the export license before the helicopters could be shipped, but they refused to wait. (The reason for the rush has been variously attributed to urgent humanitarian needs and political opportunism.) Without realizing that customs agents were watching their every move, Comminges and Dieguimde transferred the helicopters to Miami International Airport and had them loaded onto a cargo plane. Just before midnight on August 16, as the plane sat on the tarmac preparing for takeoff, customs agents swooped in and seized the helicopters.
Still more puzzled than anything else, customs officials did not arrest either Comminges or Dieguimde. According to sources familiar with the investigation, the agents had no intention of bringing criminal charges against the men, preferring instead to handle the matter administratively, such as imposing a fine for not obtaining the licenses. That strategy would soon take a dramatic turn.
The night the helicopters were seized, Dieguimde was introduced to the customs officer in charge of the case, Special Agent Jeffrey Outlaw. The next day Dieguimde began leaving telephone messages for Outlaw. When he finally spoke to the agent (a call customs officials secretly tape-recorded), Dieguimde began bragging about how he worked for a very rich and powerful man who had connections to the White House and friends in the U.S. Senate.
Dieguimde told Outlaw that his boss, Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, would reward him if he could find a way to release the helicopters. He even offered to fly the agent to Sissoko's oceanfront hotel and casino in Gambia, where he would stay as Sissoko's guest. "What I am trying to tell you," Dieguimde explained, "is he will be very grateful toward you."
Within a matter of days, Comminges, Dieguimde, and another Sissoko employee, Miriama Darboe, agreed to pay Outlaw $30,000 if he would quickly release the helicopters. On August 23, in the parking lot of the Miami Airport Hilton hotel, Comminges and Dieguimde handed him $5000 in cash as a down payment.
Like his astonishing largess, Sissoko's personal history has become the stuff of legend. Reportedly he was born 52 years ago in a thatched hut in the tiny Malian village of Dabia, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. He claims to have left Africa as a stowaway on a cargo ship bound for China, where he worked for a man who made him a sideshow attraction, charging people for their first glimpse of a black man. Next stop was India, where he supposedly lived with a holy man near Bombay before returning to Africa as a house servant. He may or may not have sold soup in a train station.
So how did Sissoko make his millions? The New York Times reported that he began his entrepreneurial career in India as a textile trader. His Miami attorneys distributed a biography in which he became wealthy when oil was discovered on land he owned. But Sissoko tripped up that claim by later telling an Associated Press reporter that he has never owned a piece of land that contained oil; rather, he was an oil middleman.
Last year, according to the Miami Herald, he told a French-language magazine that he made his fortune in Gabon -- largely in the wood trade. And earlier this year the Herald reported what it described as "prevalent rumors" that Sissoko's fortune was the result of his having looted archaeological treasures from Mali.
The most fanciful account, promoted by Sissoko himself, has him striking it rich while laboring in the diamond mines of Liberia. Five days a week the miners worked for the company, which provided them a modest salary and room and board, Sissoko recounted in an interview with reporters several months ago. One day a week, however, the miners were allowed to sift through dirt discarded from the mine and keep any diamonds they might come across. According to Sissoko, it took him just six months to collect thirteen stones worth nine million dollars. In fact, he told the Associated Press, he has such a knack for finding diamonds that once, while working as a servant in Senegal, he stumbled across a single diamond worth $4.5 million.
Many people question Sissoko's claims of found wealth. Recent published reports, for instance, cast doubt on the Liberian diamond story. Typically, diamonds from that area are industrial quality and do not command such high prices.
Liberia, however, is considered an agreeable locale for another type of business: arms trafficking. Speculation that Sissoko may be involved in the international arms trade got a boost earlier this year when he was spotted at a Miami hotel meeting with the infamous Sarkis Soghanalian, who went to federal prison for trying to sell 103 U.S. combat helicopters to Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 1983. A Sissoko aide downplayed the meeting, claiming that the two men have mutual friends and that Sissoko wasn't even aware of Soghanalian's history as an arms trafficker.
The newest information regarding the source of Sissoko's money comes from Ewa Adamek, the former entourage member who acted as an interpreter. Adamek says Sissoko often bragged of his close ties to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. "Baba is a personal friend of Gadhafi," she asserts. "He said if he ever needed money all he needed to do was make one telephone call to Gadhafi."
Officials at the state department and the justice department say they have no idea how Sissoko comes by his wealth. "He's got all sorts of money and nobody knows how it was made," says one senior government source. "There is no trail here -- nothing." (Through his attorneys, Sissoko declined to speak directly to New Times for this article.)
Today Sissoko controls an array of business ventures in the United States, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, including interests in several hotels and casinos. But his most recent entrepreneurial dream seems to have been establishing an airline -- named for his hometown and providing nonstop service between Gambia and New York. In the past few years Sissoko has spent tens of millions of dollars buying planes and courting American officials he believed could help him.
One person who might have been able to provide him access to government officials was John Catsimatidis, CEO of the New York firm Red Apple Companies, which sold Sissoko a pair of jetliners for three million dollars. Catsimatidis is also a major Democratic Party fundraiser, and he told the New York Times he had hopes that Sissoko would help enrich party coffers. Two months before last year's presidential election, Sissoko was invited to attend a dinner party with President Clinton in Washington.
He may have missed a night of schmoozing with the most powerful man in America, but Sissoko wasted no time making the acquaintance of certain members of South Florida's power elite. Among his local attorneys have been Ted Klein, whose 1995 nomination to the federal bench by Clinton was scuttled amid partisan wrangling; Thomas Spencer, Jr., whose client list includes former Iran-contra figure Gen. Richard Secord, and who successfully argued in federal court that the 1994 Hialeah mayor's race should be set aside because of allegations of vote fraud; and H.T. Smith, one of South Florida's most prominent and influential black attorneys and former president of the National Bar Association. Additional attorneys -- no one seems to know precisely how many -- were retained here, in New York, and in Los Angeles.
To work the corridors of Washington, Sissoko hired former Indiana senator Birch Bayh, who lost his seat to Dan Quayle in 1980. Sissoko also retained a separate team of lawyers to represent Serge Comminges, Moumouni Dieguimde, and Miriama Darboe.
After sitting in a Swiss jail for two months, Sissoko decided not to fight his extradition, and in late October he was flown to Miami to be charged in federal court with bribery and violation of federal export regulations. His bail was set at $20 million, the highest bond ever required of a defendant in the Southern District of Florida. He posted it within hours.
Had the matter gone to trial, the government's case would have succeeded or failed on the strength of a series of secretly recorded telephone conversations in which Sissoko, using Darboe as a interpreter, spoke with Outlaw regarding delivery of the two Bell helicopters. In all likelihood, those taped conversations would have raised serious doubts about the charges against him.
Transcripts of the recordings reveal that Sissoko himself never offered the agent money in exchange for release of the aircraft. In fact, on numerous occasions Sissoko told Special Agent Outlaw he did not want to engage in any illegal activity because of his desire to maintain good relations with the United States. "If it is illegal," he said during one conversation, "I do not want to accept.... It will be bad against me." The transcripts also show that Outlaw pushed and prodded Sissoko to authorize payment of the bribe.
In retrospect, government officials concede, the criminal case against Sissoko could have been managed better by both the U.S. Attorney's Office and customs, particularly regarding the supervision of conversations between Outlaw and Sissoko. Normally a case involving allegations of bribery would be managed by prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's public corruption unit. But at the time the Sissoko case was developing, attorneys from that unit were scrambling to obtain indictments in the Operation Greenpalm probe of corruption at Miami City Hall, as well as investigating a group of rogue police officers in Broward. In fact, the Sissoko matter was such a low priority that it was initially assigned to Stephen Binhak, a 31-year-old prosecutor with only a couple of years of experience.
Defense attorneys believed Sissoko had been entrapped and that the tapes would have clearly revealed that. In their view, Comminges and Dieguimde were acting on their own when they offered a bribe to Outlaw. After learning of the scheme, Sissoko may have agreed to allow the bribe to be paid, but only because he felt he had no choice. According to the defense attorneys, Sissoko concluded he was being extorted by the customs agent and was afraid that if he didn't pay the money, he would never get the helicopters. In addition, the attorneys were prepared to make a cultural argument, the outlines of which were provided by H.T. Smith in an essay he wrote for the Miami Herald. From his client's standpoint, Smith argued, paying bureaucrats was not unusual. "In Sissoko's culture, not only is it legal, it is expected of a rich African chief," Smith wrote. "In 1988 Congress recognized these cultural differences at the behest of American businessmen. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was amended to permit businessmen to 'tip' foreign government officials for otherwise legal ministerial duties."
The defense attorneys say they knew they had a good chance of winning an acquittal -- if they could just agree on a strategy. "When you get that many lawyers on a case, you've got colonels and generals running off in their own directions with no leadership," Ted Klein admits.
But rather than concentrating on the merits of their defense, several of Sissoko's attorneys mounted personal attacks on prosecutor Stephen Binhak and customs agent Outlaw. In a motion to dismiss the charges against Sissoko and his co-defendants, for example, the attorneys pointedly accused Binhak and Outlaw of conspiring to frame Sissoko. That combative tone was carried over into the meetings between the defense attorneys and Binhak's superiors, both in Miami and Washington. "I guess it got personal," Klein acknowledges, "and that was unfortunate."
Late last year, as attacks on Binhak's character continued, justice department officials decided to assign an additional prosecutor to the case -- Richard Scruggs, a senior official with twenty years' experience. "I think it was disgraceful," Scruggs says, "how these senior and experienced defense attorneys tried to pick on a young and bright assistant United States attorney to attempt to dismiss this case and destroy his reputation." Scruggs himself would not be immune from attack, however. In what appeared to be a well-orchestrated campaign on Miami's black radio stations, both Scruggs and Binhak were accused of being racist for their determined efforts to prosecute Sissoko.
Simultaneously another campaign was under way in Washington, D.C., where former senator Birch Bayh was feverishly working the halls of Congress. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Rep. William Jefferson (D-Louisiana), as well as black members of Florida's congressional delegation -- Carrie Meek, Alcee Hastings, and Corrine Brown -- all lobbied the justice department on Sissoko's behalf. Corrine Brown was particularly forceful in promoting her view that Sissoko should not be required to serve his prison sentence and should instead be allowed to leave the country. "I see no good that can come of having Mr. Sissoko spend 41 days [sic] in a federal penitentiary," Brown wrote Attorney General Janet Reno on June 17. That was the second letter the Jacksonville Democrat had sent to Reno in a week, and it came just three days after she had spoken to Reno by telephone regarding Sissoko.
Bayh himself had several meetings with senior justice department officials, including Robert Litt, whom President Clinton had just nominated as assistant attorney general in charge of the entire criminal division; and Paul Fishman, an associate attorney general who worked for Reno's second in command, Jamie Gorelick. "In those meetings," says one knowledgeable source, "Bayh just completely trashed Binhak as someone who was evil and out of control."
In another endeavor, a congressional staff member directly called the prosecutors to question why Sissoko was being prosecuted -- a staggering breach of propriety. Neither Scruggs nor Binhak will comment on the actions of individual members of Congress, but both stress that the efforts of Bayh and others to influence the outcome of the case failed.
Speaking with unusual candor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scruggs expresses amazement at the intensity of maneuvering on Sissoko's behalf: "Several months ago I said that in my twenty years as a prosecutor, I have never seen such a blatant attempt to exercise political pressure. And since then it has only increased. I have never experienced such direct demands from community leaders and from members of Congress through the attorney general's office to try and get me to dismiss a case."
Birch Bayh did not return telephone calls seeking comment for this article. His colleagues on Sissoko's defense team, though, eventually took pains to distance themselves from his actions. "It was coming only from Bayh's office," says Thomas Spencer, who described the lobbying strategy as "unorthodox" and "a mistake."
"I would not engage in such conduct," adds Ted Klein. "I have never seen where those kinds of things were ever effective." Klein's disdain for Bayh grew over the past year to the point that, in meetings with other attorneys, he began referring to the former senator as "Birch Barf." "I'm not going to deny that I said that," an embarrassed Klein concedes today. "It was an intemperate remark on my part and I am not proud of having said that."
In January Sissoko pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of authorizing an illegal gratuity. The plea bargain marked the only successful compromise between prosecutors and defense attorneys, for whom relations were so strained that simple discourse became nearly impossible.
At the sentencing in March, the courtroom was packed with Sissoko supporters, including ambassadors from four African nations who were there to offer testimonials. But U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore cut short the gathering and quickly sentenced Sissoko to four months in jail -- the minimum possible. With credit for the time he served in Switzerland awaiting extradition, he owes a mere 43 days of jail time. Moore also sentenced him to four months of house arrest and hit him with a $250,000 fine. (Prosecutors had asked for a prison term of fourteen months.)
So why did nearly six months pass between Sissoko's sentencing and his surrender to jailers this past week? "It beats the hell out of me," Ted Klein says. "If I had my way, I would have walked him over to the jail right then, knocked on the door, and let him start serving his 43 days. But I'm not in control. This is just another product of the many people he has around him."
According to Thomas Spencer, even the appeal on the grounds that Sissoko was protected by diplomatic immunity wasn't the defendant's idea. That appeal was filed by attorneys representing Gambia, who claimed that Sissoko, at the time of his arrest, was traveling under a diplomatic passport. "He has to let them play it all out," says Spencer, "because otherwise he wouldn't get the respect of the people who are trying to help him -- the president of Mali, the president of Senegal, the president of Togo, the president of Gambia."
Today Sissoko's principal criminal defense attorney is Mark Schnapp, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice at Greenberg Traurig, one of South Florida's most influential law firms. Schnapp was recently hired to determine if prosecutors might be willing to look at the case again and recommend that Sissoko be deported rather than imprisoned. Spencer and Klein say Schnapp was brought in because of the poisoned relationship between prosecutors and defense attorneys. But even with Schnapp leading the way, a new compromise proved to be impossible.
Sissoko did not leave his fate completely in the hands of attorneys, however. According to former entourage member Ewa Adamek, the millionaire arranged for evil spells to be cast over Binhak, Scruggs, and Judge Moore. Adamek says she was asked by one of Sissoko's aides to carefully spell their names over the phone for a woman in Africa, who then delivered the names to a remote village in Mali, where a prayer service was held. "They prayed that the power of the judge and the prosecutor would be destroyed," she recounts.
That wasn't all. A special mixture of powders and a bottle of violet-colored water were brought to Miami by a courier. Some of the powders were secretly spread around the downtown federal courthouse prior to hearings, Adamek says. Sissoko poured the rest in the bay waters around Brickell Key, along with milk and salt. "He would watch the way the water carried the milk for a sign of what to do," she recalls. As for the violet-colored water, Sissoko was instructed to wash behind his ears with it twice a day to stave off any threats from those trying to imprison him. "In their minds, this was the most powerful thing they could do to the prosecutors and the judge," Adamek explains. "And they were shocked when it didn't work."
It wasn't long before Adamek was in for her own shocking surprises. After initially being swept away with Sissoko's lifestyle and prodigious spending, she increasingly saw its negative side. Sissoko, she came to realize, loved the attention his money inspired -- from the sycophants who hung on his every word to the women eager for a life of leisure. "There is always something going on sexually with Baba," Adamek reports. "This is accepted, this is the power of men. Baba always says woman is nothing, woman is a pleasure."
Sissoko has been fond of noting that he has four wives (as permitted by his Muslim faith) and that there are no other women in his life, an image bolstered by the Miami Herald's report that Sissoko refused a massage from a female masseuse because, as he put it, he can be touched only by his wives. (He gave the woman a $10,000 tip anyway.) Adamek says she was present when that incident occurred and that the only reason Sissoko did not accept the massage was that one of his wives walked into the room.
In court papers she later prepared, Adamek also claims that Sissoko kept numerous mistresses. "Baba knows exactly how to do this so that his wives won't know what is going on," she says, adding that he maintained them in separate apartments on Brickell Key and in hotel suites around the city. One of Sissoko's favorite places to meet women, according to Adamek, was the Brickell Avenue branch of Barnett Bank, where he has an account. Female bank employees were often invited to his condominium for parties, she says, and they almost never refused. It was the same pattern in New York, where he actually married a Citibank teller.
Adamek was able to overlook Sissoko's conduct until it affected her own relationship with her boyfriend Rene Dubois. Tempted by the sudden availability of younger women, Dubois, she says, began having his own affairs. According to Adamek, he was not as discreet (or apparently as experienced) as Sissoko.
She and Dubois began arguing regularly; Adamek says she even complained to Sissoko. "He told me he would take me to Africa and make me rich, make me the manager of one of his hotels," she recalls. But first she had to learn her place and ignore Dubois's dalliances. "He said, 'Close your eyes. Close your eyes.' But I couldn't."
She had seen for herself how Sissoko's affairs had hurt his wives, and she vowed that she would not allow herself to end up in a similar situation. That vow prompted her to action this past April. She had received a phone call in her room at the Occidental Plaza Hotel from a woman asking to speak with Dubois. The woman identified herself as his girlfriend.
Adamek was furious.
After she hung up, she went looking for Dubois, whom she found in the hotel lobby. "I said to him, 'Your lady just called you!'" she remembers. The two began an argument that allegedly culminated in Dubois slapping her across the face.
Embarrassed, she started back to her room, but Dubois followed and, Adamek says, punched and kicked her in the back and arm. A hotel security guard witnessed the commotion and called police. When an officer arrived at the hotel a few minutes later, Adamek was in tears. Dubois was arrested for assault and taken to jail. Sissoko covered his bail.
Dubois's arrest was viewed as a betrayal, and Adamek was immediately cut off from Sissoko and the rest of the entourage. "Nobody would talk to me," she says. "I called Baba many times but he would not speak to me." She found herself alone and frightened, with no one to turn to in Miami.
Several days later attorney Kevin Spencer, son of Thomas Spencer, visited her and said he was representing Dubois. Adamek claims Spencer told her that if she didn't recant the account she provided police, Dubois would be sent to prison for two years. "I didn't want him to go to jail," she says. "I was really in love." So she penned a note asking the judge to dismiss the case against Dubois. "I'm completely alone, locked in my room," she wrote. "I don't eat, sleep -- I'm in such depression that I lost the will of living. For eight years this man is my love, life, and my everything." (Kevin Spencer acknowledges meeting with Adamek; he denies pressuring her to write the letter to the judge. "That's absurd," he says.)
Even though the charges against Dubois were dropped, Adamek remained an outcast from Sissoko's world. Then in May the Occidental manager received a letter from Spencer notifying him that all future bills for Adamek's hotel room would be her responsibility; Sissoko would no longer cover the charges. "They knew I didn't have any money, that I don't even have a bank account in my name," she says. "They left me with nothing."
Adamek is now suing Dubois, alleging that she is owed compensation for the eight years she lived with and supported him. Also named as a defendant in the lawsuit is Sissoko, whose broken promises, she claims, have damaged her. Thomas Spencer calls the complaint ridiculous. "She was never an employee of Mr. Sissoko," he argues. "She had no employment status whatsoever and so she is owed nothing. This is a case of a spurned lover." Spencer also says that Dubois denies ever striking Adamek. (Dubois did not respond to a request for an interview, conveyed through his attorney.) As for Adamek's claim that Sissoko is a womanizer, which she included in her lawsuit, it too is false. "He is extremely respectful of all women," Spencer insists.
Adds the younger Spencer: "In my opinion, she's only after money. She doesn't remember all the expensive jewelry she was given by Mr. Sissoko. She thinks she is entitled to millions and millions of dollars. She was just the girlfriend of Rene Dubois."
In August Adamek moved to Connecticut, where she has enrolled in a computer class with the hope of finding a job before too long. Time and distance have allowed her some perspective on her experiences with Sissoko. "I don't regret that I met these people," she says. "It was one of the most exciting times of my life. But I understand Baba better now. At first I thought he was like a god, but he is not. Now I see that this is a regular person who just knows how to operate people, work on their greed, and keep control of his power. He trusts too much in his mystique. When I realized this, I lost respect for him. I could have stayed like the others if I had been willing to play the game, but I couldn't. And I have a little bit more respect for myself now."
Others whose lives have been touched by Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko are less conciliatory. Sally Ragsdale has hired an attorney and is considering a lawsuit to collect the money she says she is owed. Four weeks ago Jim Wilbert flew to Miami from Tennessee to meet with Sissoko in an unsuccessful effort to negotiate a settlement. His lawsuit is proceeding. "This is going to be fun when it goes to court," Wilbert says. T.K. Sanders, the pilot stranded in France, was fired last week after Sissoko learned he had cooperated in the preparation of this article. "They wanted to know how I could possibly say anything bad about Mr. Sissoko," Sanders laughs. "Shit, he has no one to blame for that but himself.